Christian Damba is adding te reo Māori to the eight languages he already speaks, and challenges his fellow Kiwis to give it a go too.

Congo-Brazzaville-born Damba arrived in New Zealand in 2006 with his family through the refugee quota system, fleeing conflict in their home country.

Damba could speak his country's official languages Kituba, Lingala and French; four of the dozens of different tribal languages, and English.

Over the past 12 years living in Hamilton, he has been adding te reo Māori to that list.

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"It is important - the best way to communicate with Māori is to know their language and their culture."

Damba began his te reo journey working as a social worker at the Department of Corrections, sitting in on classes with inmates.

Through his work he needed to perform karakia (prayers), sing waiata (songs) and mihi (greetings). His job also took him onto marae, where he learned tikanga (protocol).

Later he completed a level 2 certificate in te reo Māori at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.

Through his work as a support worker at Hamilton Multicultural Services and as vice-chair of the Waikato Refugee Forum, Damba encouraged others to learn te reo.

"When we receive refugee families in Hamilton we have a powhiri, and so often I will be the one opening it with a mihi. It is such a privilege. I use it as a way to encourage other Kiwis to learn."

Auckland University of Technology Associate Professor Sharon Harvey, who heads the School of Language and Culture, said learning languages became easier the more you knew.

"Monolingual speakers may find it more difficult to learn as life goes on, whereas people who already have several languages may find learning te reo more straightforward, provided they are given the right opportunities."

Learning another language also opened doors to other cultures.

"It helps us understand different points of view, gives insight into other cultures and ways of thinking, and enables people to try standing in shoes other than their own."

Christian Damba says the best way to communicate with Māori is to know their language and culture. Photo / Alan Gibson
Christian Damba says the best way to communicate with Māori is to know their language and culture. Photo / Alan Gibson

Sarjon Warde and his family immigrated to New Zealand from Iraq in 2000, and he immediately took an interest in learning Māori.

"As part of the Assyrian indigenous community in Iraq, with a language that has also been suppressed by colonisation, I really appreciated the way Māori here was being promoted."

As a multilinguist – he can speak Assyrian, Arabic, English and a bit of Spanish – Warde saw learning Māori as "exciting".

"I also felt it was my responsibility as a New Zealander."

Warde started off learning while watching Māori TV, and basic greetings through YouTube.

Later, through studying for a bachelor's degree in social work at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, he was able to further immerse himself, with many teachers and students being Māori.

In his job as a social worker with Red Cross New Zealand's refugee programme in Wellington, Warde was passing on his passion to new arrivals.

"I try to use te reo as much as I can, with greetings, and then if there are meetings by performing the appropriate karakia and doing a pepeha."

During the six-week programme in the Māngere Resettlement Centre, former refugees learned basics like kia ora, and some waiata.

Many refugees arriving in New Zealand connected with Māori, as some of them were part of oppressed indigenous groups themselves, Warde said.

"As the indigenous language it has a strong connection with the land we are living in."

Te Wānanga o Aotearoa kaiako (teacher) Netana Matene said people of all nationalities came through their Māngere campus.

"It is really quite colourful. The language was created in the heavens, handed down to us Māori, who are fortunate enough to be the guardians. Our job is to share it with the world.

"The beautiful thing about learning another language is you have created your own systems on how to absorb another language and culture. Te reo and tikanga go hand in hand."

Min Aung, originally from Burma, said he "admired" Māori traditions.

"There are similarities between Burmese and Māori culture, including taking shoes off when we enter houses, and paying high respect to elders."

Aung arrived with his family in New Zealand in 2010 through the UNHCR resettlement programme, settling in Hamilton.

He has since taken two courses in te reo and tikanga.

Despite speaking four other languages – Burmese, Malay, English and beginner Mandarin – Aung still incorporated Māori into his everyday life working as a bus driver.

"I speak Māori with work mates and passengers daily, mainly greetings. At home too, I help my daughter with her Māori homework.

"I wanted to learn to pay respect. Te reo also helps bridge social differences, and helps with making friends and in business."